Government and Industry Responses to Media Violence

Media violence has been taken up as a public policy issue by a number of Western countries. Central to the debate has been the challenge of accommodating what may appear to be opposing principles—the protection of children from unsuitable media content and upholding the right to freedom of expression.

In the U.S., where television began as a commercial enterprise, the First Amendment, ensuring free speech and freedom of the press, has been used forcefully to argue against any government intervention in the operation of media organizations.

The Canadian Charter of Rights also guarantees freedom of expression, but it embodies a greater acceptance that reasonable limits can be placed on individual rights for the greater good of society. In Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and many European countries, television followed on the heels of state-owned radio and began with the premise that any enterprise using public airwaves had a social responsibility. This premise from the 50s may seem somewhat archaic in today’s competitive media environment, but in Canada it provided the foundation for a public policy framework to address media violence.

Canadian Government and Industry Initiatives on Television Violence

Canada has long been the largest importer of American television programming. This is due to its geographical proximity to the U.S., as well as an inability to produce profitable programming for a small domestic market.

Violence in this programming had become a public policy issue by the 70s, but it was the deregulation of children’s programming in the U.S. and the emergence of the VCR during the 80s that led to a substantial increase in public concern about the issue. Children’s TV programming, especially cartoons, suddenly became less benign, and children and young teens had access to adult fare that had previously been denied to them in theatres.

In the early 90s, the federal broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), began consultations on the issues relating to television violence with the broadcasting, cable and program production industries, as well as public health professionals, educators, policy-makers and consumer groups. At the same time, following several tragic “flashpoints,” a petition against media violence, signed by 1.3 million Canadians, was presented to the Prime Minister.

In 1993, a symposium hosted by the C.M. Hincks Institute for Children’s Mental Health brought together all of the stakeholders. The industry-based Action Group on Violence on Television (AGVOT) was formed at this symposium and soon after, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) filed with the CRTC a revised code on violence in broadcasting which all privately-owned conventional television stations and networks would ultimately be obliged to follow. (This code is reviewed every five years.)

The Code’s provisions included:

  • a prohibition on airing programs that are gratuitously violent and that promote or glamorize violent acts
  • a “watershed hour” of 9:00 p.m. before which only violence suitable for children could be aired
  • a promise to develop a program classification system
  • a commitment to sensitivity about violence against vulnerable groups, such as women and minorities
  • a statement that violence would not be shown as a preferred way of solving problems, or as the central theme of children’s programming and that children’s programming would not invite dangerous imitation

The CAB also established the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), an industry self-regulatory body mandated to respond to complaints from the public about violence and other matters. If a complaint is dealt with satisfactorily through the self-regulatory process, it is not included on the CRTC’s public record that is reviewed at licence renewal time for the station/network involved. If not resolved, complaints are brought to the federal regulator.

In late 1993, after a two-day meeting hosted by the CRTC, representatives of Canadian parent and teacher organizations recommended the formation of an online clearinghouse for resources on media education and information on media issues. This resulted in the formation of the Media Awareness Network under the aegis of the National Film Board of Canada. This organization would eventually, in 2012, become MediaSmarts.

In June 1994, the V-chip entered the picture as a technological tool that parents could use to control children’s exposure to televised violence. The V-chip effectively gave users the ability to block all content on their televisions that failed to meet a certain age-rating. The CRTC ultimately ensured that foreign signals offered by Canadian distributors were encoded with a classification system. The ratings system itself would not be developed and encoded into programming until March 2000. At the same time, private broadcasters and cable companies launched a website to provide information on the classification system, the V-chip and other related matters.

These initiatives - the V-chip, a classification system, industry codes and a public education initiative - remain in place today. All programs (excluding sports, news, talk shows and music videos) display an age-appropriate rating. Most Canadian-bought TVs are equipped with a V-chip (though less than 10 per cent of households use it). The CBSC reviews and adjudicates complaints from the public and adherence to the voluntary industry codes remains a condition of CRTC licensing.

The Rating of Films and Videos in Canada

In Canada, film and video classification is a provincial matter. The classification boards were established in the early 1900s as tools for film censorship but the responsibility has shifted over the years from censoring films to rating them.

Most boards still retain the ability to censor and ban movies through their theatre legislation; few exercise this power except in the case of adult sex videos and even these cases are rare. Films coming from the U.S. have generally been self-censored already by producers to avoid the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) N-17 rating. It should be noted that these ratings are recommendations only and while individual movie houses or video stores may choose to enforce them, these ratings are not enforced by law. That said, the adoption of these ratings systems is so widespread that film ratings have heavy clout in determining the content of a film.

When a film is released on video, it is rated by the national Canadian Rating System for Home Videos. Ratings are produced by averaging the film classifications assigned by the seven provincial boards. All provinces, except Quebec, now require the Canadian Home Video ratings stickers to be displayed on rental video jackets. Just as in the U.S. the system is voluntary, but video stores are encouraged to display posters explaining the classifications to customers. Though video rental stores are not supposed to rent adult videos to children, there is no legislation to prevent them from doing so.

Video Game Ratings

Video games have a ratings system similar to the one being used by the film industry. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Unlike the MPAA, the ESRB covers video game ratings in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The ESRB’s rating system is further discussed on the ESRB’s website which allows users to search games in order to see their ratings and read specific reasons for a given rating. For more details, see our section on Video Games.

The Internet

With the increasing role the Internet and networked technologies play in our lives, violent content can be accessed from almost anywhere. As user-generated content of all kinds continues to populate websites and file sharing communities of all kinds, children are becoming more at risk than ever before of encountering violence online.

While television and films may display graphic representations of violence or gore, only in exceptional circumstances do we encounter images of actually performed acts of personal violence on television or in film. The Internet, on the other hand, offers up much more access to images of real world violence and gore. Depending on the nature of such content they may be illegal or merely tasteless and offensive. Many web hosting services and websites have user agreements that prohibit certain kinds of offensive violent content as well so it is worthwhile to read the rules for a given site.

As a parent or teacher, it is important to be able to address concerns about this kind of media violence with youth and children and to teach them how to respond to these types of encounters with online violence. More information on how to handle illegal and tasteless content such as materials that promote hate can be found in our Online Hate section.

The Future

The entertainment communications environment has changed considerably since the establishment of codes, ratings and filtering devices to protect children from unnecessary and excessive violence in the media. The convergence of media platforms and the availability of wireless (and hand-held) communications technologies are challenging former protection strategies such as “watershed hours” and “putting the TV in a well-trafficked area of the home.”

It seems clear that in a globalized, increasingly unregulated world, the protection of children is going to rely increasingly on the vigilance of media-aware parents, public pressure from consumers and professional groups, and the responsiveness of a responsible media sector.